24 Times Around the Sun

I'm breaking open this blog again on my 24th birthday, my last before I have a little babe attached to my hip. Right now that babe is squirming around in my belly, teasing me with head-butts to my pelvis as if to say "let me out Mama! I'm ready to meet you!" At nearly 38 weeks I am ready to meet him too! I'm trying to balance rest and preparation and excitement for the main event which could happen any time from right-this-minute to a month from now.

On the cusp of what I anticipate will be one of the greatest shifts in my life, I feel strong. I feel fortified by the past months of change. I've said a firm goodbye to old dreams and taken steps towards new ones. Decisions that at one time felt too big to make, have been faced, and put to rest. I feel full to the brim when I reflect on my career as a dancer. I also feel that I'm leaving at the right time, that I'm ready for a new cup by which to measure fulfillment. 

Last week Hadrian asked me sweetly if I'd like him to get me a pedicure for my birthday, "you know, since you aren't cramming your feet into pointe shoes anymore." I'm so excited to give my feet a rest; to give new parts of my body and mind and soul a chance to hold me up, to get tougher, and to make something beautiful.

Stage and Studio: Sacre

Another memory for keeping: My second year in the company we brought back Nijinsky’s iconic le Sacre du Printemps or Rite of Spring. Years ago it was Robert Joffrey who took on the task of reviving this iconic ballet and what an honor it was to be a part of this continuing legacy. Scare is a visual and musical work of genius. The dancers create ever changing patterns of color and rhythm, accented with stomping and twirling. The music, Stravinsky, is matched to the measure requiring the dancers to memorize endless sets of counts (onetwothreefour, onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight, onetwo, onetwothreefourfive...)This is a ballet from another era. It tells stories from a time when humans were one with nature, dependent on the abundance or scarcity of season, and reverent of their traditions and gods. The ballet is abstract, told in a language of dance that seems foreign even to us dancers. And yet it is deeply emotional.

At the end of the ballet there is a famous scene of sacrifice. The "chosen one" who is fated to dance herself to death stands perfectly still in the middle of the stage while her female companions gather around her in circles. There is a rumbling of drums and in one breath, every woman falls flat on her chest, leaving the girl who will be sacrificed exposed. The fall is repeated five times. Each time we fall with more abandon. We become less aware of the ache in our elbows, the impact of the floor and the beads around our necks digging into our chests. With each fall we feel more connected to each other and to the lone woman in the center of the stage. When we make our way offstage, we huddle in the wings to watch our "chosen one" perform the final solo. We hold our breath through her shivers and backbends, and nearly 125 desperate jumps, until she falls to the ground, defeated.

We took this ballet on tour to 22 cities. I performed in the second act every single show. By the end I’m pretty sure both of my arms were sprained. But this moment in the ballet is, in my opinion, one of the most effective and beautiful of all the ballets. And I am so grateful to have been a part of it.

Photo curtesy of the Joffrey Ballet. Erica Edwards as the "Chosen One".

Photo curtesy of the Joffrey Ballet. Erica Edwards as the "Chosen One".

Stage and Studio: My Drunken Debut

My first production with Joffrey was Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow. I was one of two trainees selected for participation and I was thrilled. I took technique class upstairs with the company and desperately tried to stay out of everyones' way. I observed longingly as the company members had their cool conversations and made their cool jokes and professionally danced their cool dances. They regarded me with pleasant indifference except for one time when one of the dancers chided me for snacking on edamame beans in the studio. Lucas, to this day I'm not sure whether or not you were legitimately upset with me...

Life was good for seventeen year old me. I loved The Merry Widow and The Merry Widow loved me back. I got to wear warm-ups during barre and get partnered by company men. I mean what more could a post-boarding-school-bun-head ask for?

And then, as if things could get even better, I was singled out for a featured role. Mr. Hynd pointed at me and said, “Ok I need you to be the drunk guest at the party, you know just a little tipsy…”

I froze. You see I had never been drunk in my life. I’d never even tasted alcohol. I was not merely underage, I was the straightest laced girl at the party. I was the girl who went to the party for puppy chow, and left as soon as things got “fun". I was also not particularly accustomed to being publicly funny. 

But I was up for the challenge. 

I went home and got pretend drunk in front of the mirror. I took mental notes when those around me appeared “a little tipsy”. I practiced holding a bottle and falling out of chairs. I did my homework and showed up to rehearsal warm, rehearsed, and ready to drink. 

Looking back now, I may have overdone it. I bumped into dancers and flirted shamelessly with other “guests”. I poured myself glass after glass after imaginary glass. For how much alcohol my character consumed it would have been more accurate to have made her throw up and black out somewhere in the wings. But I didn't know any better.

As silly as it sounds, I consider this drunken debut the first success of my career. The next year when I joined the company and received my first invitation to "go out", everyone was astounded to learn that I never drank. Apparently my performance made the best bad first impression I could have hoped for. 

Margot Fonteyn and artists of The Australian Ballet performing The Merry Widow in New York, 1976. Photo by Martha Swope.

Margot Fonteyn and artists of The Australian Ballet performing The Merry Widow in New York, 1976. Photo by Martha Swope.

My Chicago: Dirty Windows

Hadrian and I fell in love with our current apartment because of its many large windows. On the day we viewed the unit, snow was falling softly outside creating the illusion of being inside a snow globe. The windows, like all surfaces in the apartment, were covered in a fine layer of grime but we were assured that the whole place would be spick and span before we moved in. 

Six months have passed and no matter how much we scrub, "spick and span" eludes us. The groves in the radiator attract perpetual nests of dust; the paint on the bathroom windowsill becomes a bit more peel-y every time we shower; and those windows, our glorious windows cannot be cleaned from the outside. 

The vertically sliding panes make reaching out to scrub futile. I've considered buying a giant magnet, googled how to disassemble old-windows, and daydreamed about climbing out onto the foot-wide outer sill of our fourth-floor apartment. I've finally given up and begun the process of acceptance.

Our dirty windows possess a kind of twenties-in-the-big-city charm I suppose. (The windows in Friends are probably sooty.) Their south-east positioning lets light in all day long. The thin, old glass allows enough summer breeze to flow through to make our air-conditioner-less space bearable, and enough winter cold in to keep us engaged with nature. Through our dirty windows we can see the trees change with the seasons and hear the bus arrive every five minutes. We've become accustomed to bright lights at night and the frequent blast of music from passing cars. Our windows make me feel a part of this loud, mucky, wonderful city.

Sometimes living with dirty windows, and my consequent grumbling, puts the world into perspective. Considering the wide scope of hardships that come with life, I feel fortunate to have this one.

Stage and Studio: An Ode to Live Music

fingerprints on ivory.

sound so used to the dancer's ear that it blends into

silence,

until caught in a swell on the arm, at the curve of the spine, in the hushed vacuum between heartbeats.

until her muscles float,

hugged by twisting veins, sustained by an oxygen tide, buoyed by notes floating through air

and whatever it is between those notes that she

cannot see but feel.

silence,

until her heart wakes up and sees its reflection in melody,

hears its voice in movement,

feels a vibration that extends from toe to eyelash,

that shakes her cup of tears so that they spill over and

fall

shivering

to settle in her throat.

sound turned to steam and sweat

hums from her skin.

Have you seen Chodakowska's fountain sculptures? They are stunning.

My Chicago: Lurie Garden

At the southern end of Millennium Park, hidden behind giant hedges, lies Lurie Garden. This urban oasis offers fields of wildflowers, alcoves for sitting or napping, and even a small pool for dipping tired feet and making a wish. If you're lucky, you might stumble upon this place by accident. You might stroll through the people-saturated park lost in thought until you spy a gap in the hedges. As you enter, the bustle of the city becomes quiet. And as you walk through the meadow of purple and gold, you might feel as if this secret garden was erected just for you.

Stage and Studio: Episode in the Streets

I want to start a series in appreciation of this sweet ballet thing I get to do. There are moments in this profession that are so extraordinary, so completely full of life, that they make my heart swell with emotion. And there are moments when I remember how lucky I am to have a job in the arts at all, let alone a steady paycheck and health insurance and workers' rights. 

I think it's appropriate to start this series by revisiting a memory, the best day of work ever.

Episode 31 has been in Joffrey's repertoire for three years now. It was originally made on dancers at Julliard by Swedish choreographer, Alexander Ekman. Alex and his assistant, Zach, came to work with us at the beginning of my third season with the Joffrey. Fresh from summer layoff and outstandingly sore, we spent full days learning how to shake wildly on the floor, fly through the air without pointing our feet, and shout from our diaphragm. Alex and Zach were so physically invested, so dynamic and encouraging in the studio, that we couldn't complain about the challenge. We actually couldn't resist it. I think it's safe to say that most of us were in heaven, even as we dragged our knees and quads through hell. Slowly, the choreography began to imprint on our muscles. The complicated rhythms and unfamiliar movements began to feel right. I'm pretty certain if you blasted Ane Brun and asked me to remember the steps fifty years from now, I'd be able to. 

A week into the rehearsal process Alex announced that we'd be taking excerpts of his ballet to the street, flash mob style. He planned out an itinerary for our performance and gave us instructions for each location. We gathered in the lobby of Joffrey's studios and exchanged excited glances. We suppressed giggles and focused on togetherness...I can't believe we're about to... "GO!" We left in a pack. Thirty dancers, arms up, heads bobbing, running down East Randolph street. Pedestrians paused to watch as we performed another excerpt underneath the train tracks complete with shouting and clapping. Our adrenaline surged as we made our way up the steps to the elevated platform and onto a train. As discreetly as possible we positioned ourselves among the passengers, and on a dancer's cue, began to...well "thrust" is the best word. We restrained our laughter at the reactions of the passengers. We felt shocking and compelling, we were bringing fun and creativity and movement and art into the world. It felt incredibly silly but also important. We danced across the Wabash Avenue Bridge and on the giant steps at the Riverwalk. We performed while lying down around the mirrored statue most of us still call "The Bean". At one point we picked up a pack of cheerleaders that followed us around for a while shouting out a cheer they made up for us. Finally we ended up on our knees in a huge, shallow fountain. We splashed through our choreography, shivering and grinning and giving everything we had left. We finished the day thoroughly soaked and exhausted, exhilarated and grateful. Thanks for that Alex. For me, that day and this ballet will always be special.

Photos curtesy of the Joffrey Ballet.

My Chicago: River Forest

Lately, instead of boarding the North-bound bus after work I've been taking the Green Line train, West from downtown, all the way to the end at Harlem. Hadrian and I are house-sitting for some friends in the beautiful suburban village of River Forest. He picks me up from the train stop each evening and we drive home to greet their labradoodle, Sally. After dinner we take her on a walk. Thrilled at the abundance of sights and smells, Sally jerks us about along the pristine, peaceful streets of their neighborhood. We breathe in the outdoors, happy to be together. As the sun sets, turning the sky pink and the trees black, we admire the old, ivy-dressed mansions and pick out our favorites. 

Some photos taken on a weekend afternoon. It's lovely here with gray skies too.

In This Together: Shane Urton

Shane is a dancer, choreographer, and explorer; a lover of languages, music, and good conversation. We danced together at Joffrey before he left for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. He recently moved again, this time for a position with the Norwegian National Ballet. Shane's relentless curiosity is taking him all over the world. One of the things I miss about him is how intently he listens- to a piece of music, to a friend, to his inner self. Anyway he's crushing it! 

Mahallia: What were your first impressions of Norway?

Shane: At first, I viewed Norwegians as reaction-less and uniform. Innocent yet proud. Very polite and focused on holiday time.

M: Are there aspects of your dancing or your personality that have been able to grow differently in different companies?

S: Yes. And I see the two, my dancing and my personality, as one. They are the same experience/perception, growing and changing equally. For example, when I started working for the Royal New Zealand Ballet I stopped apologizing for who I am. I stopped putting on airs as I often did in Chicago. When I stopped apologizing for my existence, I learned to open my back. My back grow broad and such width permitted my chest to rise, much like the sun in the morning (something I hadn't felt before). Especially in dance, but equally for anyone, posture is something we appreciate even if only subconsciously. We attach confidence to a lifted chest, and a relaxed ribcage only accentuates the posture. As my confidence grew I attracted more attention. The attention brought opportunities to enjoy as well as challenges to tango with. Quickly, so much unraveled in a beautiful way. Bravery in character grew proportionally with stronger technique. I began to practice dance as if I had created it in the first place, re-organizing the principles and aesthetics to fit me instead of struggling with the parameters of some external goal. I trusted myself to provide the body mechanics of dance with purpose, which encouraged greater enthusiasm and stamina. 

My first few weeks in Norway were different. I felt frequent quakes of insecurity. Somehow I was disconnected from all the work I did in N.Z. I let myself get distracted from what I knew to be true. I was dancing to please my new director- hoping to be in a good place to have my contract extended passed December (even though I had JUST arrived). I had to remember to let that go and to return to dancing for myself. So much changed after I made that shift again. I ended up dancing with a beautiful and powerful woman, Camilla Spidsoee, in Jirí Kylián's Petit Mort. Petit Mort is a piece that truly changed my world when I saw it for the first time. We have to impress ourselves, work for ourselves; not others. Working on Petit Mort was a stand out moment that helped me really understand that lesson that we all hear so often. 

I began to practice dance as if I had created it in the first place, re-organizing the principles and aesthetics to fit me instead of struggling with the parameters of some external goal.

M: How about culture? How has adapting to lifestyles in other countries affected you?

S: Adapting to different cultures through traveling and by living abroad has demonstrated to me how alike we all are. There are as many awful people as there are wonderful people everywhere. I try to be as patient as I can, especially if some habits of a particular culture are frustrating to me. Over time, I've seen that most people want the same things and by "grooving" with their customs you can obtain such things. 

The New Zealanders, as well as the Norwegians, understand how to relax more and take time to simply enjoy life. I didn't practice this in the U.S. and I'd often feel anxious if I didn't think I was being productive. I am happy to 'window shop' through various cultures, choosing which traits to adopt and which I am happy to do without. In time I end up building my own culture. 

M: What is the biggest challenge that you've faced in picking up and moving across the world? 

S: Family is important to me. Being separated from their lives can be challenging. Also, dealing with the various systems and bureaucracies of other countries is frustrating at times. It can feel like faceless people (who also view you as a faceless person) are providing many unnecessary obstacles for you to play with. 

M: How do you do that? Pick up and move across the world? What is your process for getting rid of stuff and packing up and saying goodbye?

S: Much like ripping off a band-aid, once done you realize how much of a non-issue it is. Many of us weave a net of difficult excuses around our things but letting go of stuff is actually incredibly simple. Material things like money can be earned back. Time cannot. I hold that statement close to me. 

If you haven't worn something in two years (excluding any formal wear that you like/still fits) it goes. Anything that has a waver of doubt goes. I try to permit room for only the things that are of obvious importance. I take care to not tie sentimental meaning to too many articles because that becomes psychological weight as well as extra weight in my bag that I don't want. No one likes carrying heavy things. 

Material things like money can be earned back. Time cannot.

M: I know you've choreographed quite a bit since you left Joffrey. What part of the choreographic process do you most enjoy? What part do you least enjoy?

S: I love the in-the-moment creating. Before, I didn't trust myself or the dancers so this used to terrify me. Now, simply generating material as it comes seems to be more enjoyable and equally productive. Lar Lubovitch once expressed that you should "just not know". I took that to heart. Rather than fixating on the predesigned choreography, this more gentle approach permits room for all the wonderful surprises that can come out of the work. I've often found my work to pleasantly deviate from what I had originally envisioned, which makes me feel that the work has begun to take on a life of its own.

I dislike having to ask dancers to work in their free time. I suppose I fear the rejection of being left without dancers to help create the work. However, I am deeply touched that many dancers agree anyway, it makes me feel that they believe in the work or process. 

M: What is the most fulfilling role you have danced? 

S: I've had three most fulfilling roles so far. Johan Inger's place in Jirí Kylián's Petit Mort, Oberon in Liam Scarlett's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the protagonist in Larry Keigwin's Mattress Suite. 

M: Do you have a dream role/ballet/choreographer to work with?

S: Romeo from Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo and Juliet. I would love to work with Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Crystal Pite, and of course Jirí Kylián. I would love to work with these choreographers personally to create new work as well as learn their existing repertoire.  

M: How do you prepare for a performance?

S: Of course, each show demands different preparation. I often rehearse the things that make me anxious- challenging steps, tricky partnering, and any turn (turns make me the most anxious). I review the material based on where I put my focus and where I choose to breathe. It's crucial to maintain focus and breath, even if the rest of the choreography is shaky. 

M: What is your favorite moment in the day?

S: My favorite time of day isn't necessarily the same moment However, if I have time to make a slow start, I enjoy a long breakfast.

M: Do you speak more languages since I last saw you?

S: Currently, I am making rapid improvements on my Norwegian. I expect to be fluent by the end of the year. I am so happy to be in a country whose native language isn't English (although most Norwegians speak perfect English). In New Zealand, I learned some Mandarin from a colleague who kindly entertained my enthusiasm. Norwegian doesn't have the same focus on tones like Mandarin does, but they are both very sing-songy tongues. 

M: What country do you hope to visit next?

S: I want to travel to many places...but from Norway I suppose I would like to see Sweden next. 

M: You seem to have a clear guiding light. How do you know when it's time to make a change? How do you find the courage and conviction to make the change a reality?

S: I don't know how much of a "clear guiding light" I recognize. I feel as though I've seldom understood or listened to my intuition as it were. I've sort of felt severed from my earlier self, my childish enthusiasm. Only now that I am valuing myself again (as one often does innately as a child) do I hear my intuition more. Most of the time, I feel that the course of my life is like a current that I haven't tried resisting. 

I can't seem to clearly differentiate between what is a result of my ambitious effort and what has simply come to be because I didn't resist the current. It reminds me of that scene from Finding Nemo in the ocean current that the sea turtles ride. Only it's more like a tunnel of air, wind rushing. At some point a window opens up and I'm sucked out to another path. 

I try to remember that I am the protagonist in the story, it can't exist without me. It takes courage and conviction to ask myself, "What is it that I want?" Truly want. I take the time to identify those things and prioritize what I think will help me achieve those desires. After this work, I don't necessarily consider courage or conviction. I simply take the next step. 

Photos 1 and 4: Royal New Zealand Ballet, Photo 2: Paul Matthews, Photos 3 and 5: Shane Urton.